My name is Bolod, a man who runs a tour operator-Bolod's Tours and Guesthouse in Mongolia.
I grew up in a nomadic family in the far-eastern Mongolia experiencing both the joys and hardships as any boy in rural areas. In my childhood, for example, I spent a lot of time on horseback Although, I have been living in city since long time ago, I still feel myself a rural person. In spring and winter time which are slow seasons in my job, I often rush to to the countryside. I believe that an unspoiled mother-nature can easily feed us for another thousands of years while today's uncontrolled mines may hardly do it for next 50-60 years from now.
I'm for an eco-cultural tourism in Mongolia. I lived in Soviet Union for 5 years where I was studying the economics. I loved Siberia and Central Asia most. In 1998, I visited Australia, Singapore and Japan. In 2002-2003, I lived in California, USA where I had been working for the Shamrock Moving and the Maccarthy Moving. I consider the Maccarthy Moving from San Francisco in which I was entitled as an honorary Irish, as the best moving company in the whole USA. Once a customer asked my boss what part of Ireland I was from, he said "This guy is from Mongolia Ireland".
I like the nature very much that's why I got involved in both eco and cultural tourism. And I never will quit tourism job untill my children take it over. During 1991-1999s, working as a guide with foreign tourists and anthropologists, I visited all the provinces of my country. But Mongolia's land is so big that it's impossible to visit every mountain, valley or river of it at all.
Besides my native Mongolian, I speak and read Russian, English, Italian and French. I do some private researches on the Mongols.
I'm a former long distance runner. I still love it very much and practice it with 40 min jogging on weekengs . So the best gifts for me would be anything like videos, magazines on the running and international athletics competitions. I'm a big fan of Sayid Aouita from Marocco who held 5 world records on distances from 1500m to 10000m.
On photo: I"m enjoying a snow bath under -35C after jogging.
I'm interested in many subjects on Mongolia, the Mongols as well as Central Asia, Siberia and their inhabitants. Remember, a big portion of Mongols went assimilated long time ago among the Central Asian peoples, promoting to the births of some of new nations such as Uzbeks, Turkmens, Kara Kalpakis and others.
I don't have membership to any political party.
I always wonder if we could bring those Afghanistan's Hazaras who are of clearly Mongol stock and Russia's Kalmyks back to Mongolia. I'm one of people who made aware Mongolian public of tragic destiny of Hazara tribesmen of Afghanistan. I have a collection of books on several subjects.
Since 2000, I run Bolod's Guesthouse and Tours relying on my personal experiences and of course, on my devoted assistants and experienced drivers who I work with for years. Some of them, Gerle, Bimba, Batsana, Davaa were praised by some travelers even as "super drivers" or super mechanics" for their good jobs performed during the off-road trips to the countryside.
On the photos: Davaa, Gerle and Batsanaa, the reliable drivers and good personalities.
I and my staff will do our best in order to meet your expectations.
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrowmindedness, and many of our people need is sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be achieved by vegatating in one little corner of the earth one's lifetime." Mark Twain, from Innocents Abroad
Cross with the Locals by Melanie Vuynovich.
At 8 a.m. tomorrow morning Ken and I will leave Ulaan Baatar, traveling north in a five-seat Russian Jeep stocked with enough camping gear, food and vodka for a twelve-day adventure in the remote forested steppes of Northern Mongolia. Our only companion is Dugre, a local driver, who, while fluent in Mongolian, does not speak a word of English. The fact that I have only been camping a handful of times (including Girl Scouts) does not bother me. The fact that Durge does not speak English does not bother me. The fact that only a tiny percentage of the roads we will be traveling on are paved does not bother me. Why? Because I've got a good feeling about this trip. And, because I think I am in good hands.
Sometimes when traveling it's hard to know who is being straight with you and who is just trying to make a buck. Most local people a traveler meets are "in the business" and real insider tips and honest advice (as well as un-inflated tourist prices) are about as hard to come by as peanut butter in Mongolia. It sometimes seems like everyone's number one goal is to separate you from as much money as possible.
A few days ago I arrived in the capital of Mongolia, Ulaan Baatar, with my old (high school) friend Ken. I'd chosen Mongolia specifically for its promise of wide-open spaces and sparse population – a stark contrast with the building and population dense congestion of China. Visiting Mongolia, a remote country sandwiched between China and Russia, has been frequently described as going back in time a full century and I was keen to travel back in time.
Due to the limited amount of time in the country, and the almost total lack of infrastructure (including paved roads!), Ken and I decided a somewhat organized tour would be the way to go – as long as there was a high level of flexibility. I'd done a lot of Internet research prior to our arrival, so I had an idea of our options – routes, prices, and time required. We just needed to nail down the details, made a decision and go. Surprisingly, it turned out to be much harder than we imagined.
Our first inquiry was with a friend of a friend of a friend, an American man living in Mongolia. Despite our "connections," I didn't get the impression he was being straight with us, and his quote for a tour was nearly double my research in budget tours. My questions regarding tips and advice were only vaguely answered and everything he said ultimately looped back into tours that - surprise - his company could arrange for us.
Disappointed, we turned to our guesthouse owner, a foreign man who was quite accommodating when we first arrived and had been in the business for years. His tour sounded pretty good – until Ken mentioned our desire to camp for several days along the way. That's when the owner told us that camping was not a possibility in Mongolia. Ken and I were incredulous. We are talking about a country where no one owns land and most of the rural population maintains a nomadic way of life that hasn't changed in over a century. We are talking about a place our guidebook quoted as being "the most perfect country in the world for camping." When we told the guesthouse owner as much, his replay was, "Your guidebook is out of date....but, we have friends with guesthouses all along the way and we can arrange accomodation every night."
Disheartened at being lied to and feeling somewhat pressed for time, we spent the rest of the day researching other options and running errands. We were about to just book a flight to our first destination and wing it from there when Ken suggested Mr. Bolod, a tour operator and local he'd met him on the train platform the day we arrived in Ulaan Baatar. Ken said he'd "got a good feeling about him" and suggested we at least talk to him about options. We decided he would be our last organized tour effort. Worst case scenario, we'd do the tour independently, come what may.
Thank goodness for Mr. Bolod. A native Monoglian fluent in five languages (his own, Russian, Italian, French and English), I liked him immediately. We told him what we wanted, as well as our experiences to date, and found him willing and able to accommodate our desires for a tour with enough flexibility to feel unrushed but enough structure so we wouldn't get stuck in one place for too long and run out of time.While clearly a smart businessman, Mr. Bolod was not brisk and businesslike. He spoke slowly and clearly, listening to what we wanted and giving us a tour that fit, not just #6 in his menu of options. While his tour was slightly more than what I originally wanted to pay, I didn't feel bad spending a little more - because I felt like we would be getting a lot for our money. Plus, when we asked him about camping he said, "This is Mongolia - you can camp anywhere!"After we left Mr. Bolod's office, both Ken and I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off our shoulders. We both liked him, felt like we could trust him, and were confident in him taking care of all the details of the trip. He was a local who knew the country, knew the people and knew the land. We would be in good hands. In fact, thinking back now I wonder why on earth we initially contacted expats who had a few years experience when there were locals who had lived and breathed this country for their entire lives!It is temping to follow the path of the familiar when traveling. To seek out others like you. To talk to expats living and working in a country instead of locals. To think that someone "like you" will be more honest, more straightforward and more accomodating. Sure, sometimes it's nice to have a translator who can help you get your feet wet. But, most of the time its better to go with the locals - otherwise, why did you leave home in the first place?I know that once we leave the city of Ulaan Baatar anything can happen. Yet, I feel confident that we're about to have a pretty amazing experience. And, that in the hands of Mr. Bolod and Dugre, we couldn't be safer. When crossing a busy street in a foreign country, common sense tells you to cross with the locals. Why would crossing the country be any different?********Stay tuned for the details of our 12-day Mongolian road warrior adventure - coming to you in two weeks time!
July 31, 2004
A Simple Mongolian Herder's Wife
Camping in Mongolia is amazingly easy. Step one: find a spot that looks good. Step two: stop the Jeep. Step three: set up camp. It's just that easy.
In Mongolia no one owns any land. Most of the people continue to live a nomadic way of life, uprooting themselves and their herds every season and moving to new land for grazing and watering their animals. There are areas used in summer, in winter, in spring and in fall -- depending upon what is needed for the flocks and herds at the time. While most families tend to return to the same spots over and over again, technically the land they live and work on does not actually belong to them.
So, while good manners dictated we didn't set up our tent within shouting distance of a nomadic family's ger (a round felt and wood tent that serves as home for most people outside of the cities), we were otherwise pretty much free to camp wherever we liked. And so we did.
Our driver, Dugre, always managed to find us a good spot. One night we camped in a lovely lush meadow surrounded by mountains, and another night we camped near a little brook with huge peaks as our backdrop. One of my favorite nights was when we camped in a huge field of colorful wildflowers next to the largest lake in Mongolia, Khovsgol Nuur. In fact, of the 11 nights we spent outside of the capital city, Ulaan Baatar, we spent 8 of them camping, and only two in a ger camp and one in a hotel. The freedom and solitude, as well as amazing natural beauty of Mongolia made camping seem like the natural option. The hotel was by far our worst choice and within 10 minutes we were reconsidering the decision (even considering the rain) -- especially when the beds were harder than our camping mattresses!
One of my favorite memories of the trip was on our second night, when, after eating dinner, we received a visitor -- a local nomad from one of the gers in the area. He arrived on horseback and approached quietly, wrapping the harness of his horse around his leg before kneeling down in the grass just a few feet from where I was sitting. I was the only one awake as Ken was snoozing in the tent and Dugre, our driver, was snoozing in the Jeep. I woke up Dugre immediately, as my first thought was that we were camping on someone's land and didn't receive permission. He groggily spoke to our visitor for a few minutes then went back to bed. Meanwhile I pulled out the Mongolian-English dictionary Ken had brought from Indiana University (incidentally, the ONLY school in the US with a Mongolian studies program and my alma mater) and began to try my hand at speaking Mongolian. After about 10 minutes, the visitor and I were "chatting" about whatever random things we could find in the book.
One of his first questions was if I was married. I had anticipated this and asked Ken if he wouldn't mind posing as my husband during our trip around the country -- as a way to protect my honor and inflict less modern "culture" on the local people. He had agreed and so I indicated that Ken, my "husband," was asleep in the tent. He then asked me if I had any children. I shook my head no. He gestured to the tent and then held up his pinky finger -- indicating an unflattering attribute to my companion. True to my "wife" role, I stood up for my "husband" and vigorously denied the charge, laughing inside at how certain gestures have the same significance no matter what country you happen to be visiting!
Another topic we "discussed" was wealth. The nomad had found the word "wealthy" in the guidebook and asked me if I was wealthy. I shook my head no, even though I knew in his mind the lifestyle I lead in the US would be one of incredible wealth. Or, so I thought. After I said no, he pointed to the word and himself and indicated that he was very wealthy. He pointed to the land where we were camping, the gers across the road, his horses and herds -- all a demonstration of his wealth. I was impressed with his "wealth" and his definition of wealth -- so different from that of most people I knew.
After a while, Ken woke up and joined us in our "conversation." We asked each other more questions, showed the nomad (and his son who later joined us) pictures from our guidebook of other parts of Mongolia, shared a shot of vodka and some Chips Ahoy, and even posed on the nomad's horse, per his invitation. One of my favorite mental pictures was the three men, heads bent over the phrasebook, horses at the ready and the sun starting to set behind the tent.
When they finally left, about 10 p.m., we all shook hands with big smiles. This was when I realized there is another gesture that appears to be universal -- and I don't mean the handshake. As the nomad shook my hand, he used his middle finger to tickle my palm -- and winked at me! I immediately pulled back my hand and look disprovingly at him as I walked over next to Ken and stood close. Clearly, my "converstation" with him earlier had given him the wrong idea. Either that, or he felt sorry for me since I was neither wealthy nor with children! I vowed to be a bit more reserved with future nomadic visitors - I was not in the market to be a Mongolian herder's wife!
During our tour through the country, these visits were common, though none was quite as memorable as our first. In a country where people live quite isolated lives, the appearance of visitors was quite a nice distraction and no matter where we camped were almost always visited by locals in the area - and sometimes, their entire flocks of sheet, goats, yaks and cows too!
While we were near Khovsgol Nuur we had the chance to stay in a small ger camp run by a local family. They had just set up for business and we were lucky enough to be their first guests. Set off from the lake at the base of a moutain and at the edge of a forest, the 5-ger camp was idillic and peaceful, and a far cry from the institutionalized ger camps targeting package tourists we'd seen throughout our journey.
As I mentioned before, a ger is the most common form of housing for rural Mongolians and is a large felt lined tent with a wooden frame that can be easily set up and dismantled in keeping with the nomadic lifestyle. The door always faces south. Inside, the men's side is the western part and the women's side is the eastern part with the place of honor being in the north, where the family shrine was placed. Mongolians follow Tibetian-styled Buddhism, with their own flourishes, and their shrines were filled with pictures of the Dalai Lama, wrathful protectors, candles and other offerings. These shrines were placed on large wooden trunks, colorfully colored and decorated that were used to store the family's belongings.
While our ger was a traditionally designed one, the inside was made to accomodate us and was without the usual decorations, furnishings and layouts of a nomadic family's ger. However, on several occasions Dugre took us to visit families in their gers and we were able to get an idea of what life would be like living the real lifestyle. The center of every ger was a large stove which was used to heat the ger as well as cook the families meals, and usually when we would visit one of the women would be heating milk over the stove, preparting some of the many dairy products that were the staples of the family's diet.
The distance we covered in Mongolia was small on the map but large in actual driving since we frequently traveled at only 20 kilometer's per hour. Outside of the capital and a few other areas, there are no paved or sealed roads in Mongolia. Imagine 6-10 hours of four wheeling it through mud, dirt, rocks and water and you will get an idea of our day to day journey - as well as our sore backs and behinds! Road signs were another anomoly, and Ken and I were constantly amazed at Dugre's ability to find out where were going - even if he did occasionally ask a local herder directions.
The end of our tour coincideded with Naadam, Mongolia's largest festival. The festival is in honor of Mongolian independence and features the three "manly" sports of wrestling, archery and horseback riding, though women are allowed to compete in the latter two. We timed our visit to Tsetserleg, a aimag (or provincial) capital east of Ulaan Baatar, for the first day of Naadam and witnessed all three events. The town had a carnival like atmosphere with many families setting up kitchen gers near the stadium and cooking up mutton pancakes, a personal favorite of mine (thought not everyone could say the same).
We watched the wresting in the stadium, the archery not far from there, and the horseback races from a vantage point a few kilometers from town. An impromptu market was also set up near the stadium, and tourists and locals alike wandered up and down, checking out the wares - many of them on horesback! In fact, while pedestrians were common place, as were automobiles, by far the most common form of transportation was horseback. Watching whole families arrive on horseback, five or six abreast, I felt like I had somehow been transported to an old Bonanza episode.
That night we stayed in town, in a hotel, and while Ken practiced his guitar I took a walk around the town. The streets away from the stadium were relatively quiet, since the activities for the day were over and most people were eating or with their families. I passed a few drunks stumbling around after indulging in too much airag, or fermented mares milk. The drink of choice for Mongolians, it was being sold every few meters in the town and everyone was partaking - some a bit more than was healthy! The liquid, which looks like milk, but with traces of a yellow oily layer on the top is a bit sour but otherwise not too bad (again, not everyone could say the same thing).
Walking back to the hotel I saw my 7th rainbow and was nearly run over by two teenagers "drag racing" their horses through the streets of town. The clatter of hooves on the paved road had been clearly heard, but I was unprepared for the speed of the chase. I hoped the boys hadn't been indulging in too much airag. A horse and rider at top speed could do some serious damage!
A few days later we returned to Ulaan Baatar and were immediately depressed by the big city with its large Soviet-era apartment blocks, crowded streets and lack of natural beauty. While were were excited about the numerous food options available to us - our diet of mutton, ramen and canned goods hadn't been exactly haute cuisine - Ken and I both would have rather been out in the country again. While I wasn't keen on the idea of being the wife of a Mongolian herder, perhaps living the nomadic lifestyle wouldn't be so bad after all!
It's interesting. May 15
Well, I've just got back from my two-day jeep trip into the Mongolian wilderness - and I've got to say, this is an absolutely incredible country.
As those of you who have read my previous update may recall, I'd decided to hook up for this trip with an Aussie dude called Cliff, who I met on the train from Beijing to the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar.
Our decision to go on the jeep trip came about shortly after our arrivalin Ulaanbaatar, after the two of us had the fortune to meet an amazing Mongolian dude called Bolod.
Now Bolod earns his living by arranging bespoke tours of Mongolia for tourists. And our brief to him had been pretty vague really - it was something along the lines of "We want to get the feeling that we're in the middle of nowhere and see some of the desert, and also visit some Mongolian nomad people"! Bolod duly devised a two-day, one-night programme for us which would not only tick all of our boxes, but also enable us to visit a Mongolian army base - where we were very excited to discover that we could get to have a go at driving tanks and firing guns if we offered the soldiers a sufficiently tempting bribe!
So, the fun and games started early yesterday morning, when Cliff and I were picked up by Idre - our driver and guide for the trip. Our first stop was to pick up supplies for the trip - and having been starved of my favourite snack for the last few months while I've been in Asia, I was very excited in the supermarket we went to to find a chiller cabinet stuffed to the gills with massive blocks of cheese! Alas though, it was only when we stopped for lunch later that we realised that the 'massive block of cheese' was actually a 'massive block of butter'! Doh!
Happily though, this was the only low point in what proved to be a fantastic adventure. Within minutes of getting out of Ulaanbaatar, the roads changed dramatically. Initially, there massive craters and potholes in the tarmac every few metres - and that was before the tarmac disappeared completely and we found ourselves travelling down 'highways' consisting of no more than dirt tracks. How Idre knew where he was going I'll never know - as there were no signs whatsoever and he didn't appear to have any kind of route or map!
Still, the landscape as we motored along was absolutely intoxicating. For hour after hour, there was nothing but mile upon mile of flat barren land with no trees whatsoever, and hills and mountains in the distance that looked blue due to the way they were silouetted in the sunlight. It was all very stark, but immensely beautiful in a strange sort of way. And it was a beauty only accentuated by the amazing skies - vast expanses of clear blue, punctuated only by the occasional eagle flying overhead.
The sense of isolation was also really cool. Mongolia, you see, has a population of less than two million - and around half of those live in Ulaanbaatar. This means that you're left with less than a million people scattered over a country that's actually significantly bigger than the UK - so there were times when we drove for miles without seeing a single soul.
And whenever we stopped for a break, the complete silence that surrounded us as soon as Idre turned off the jeep's engine was incredible. That said, we did occasionally pass a small nomad camp or a tiny village. Around many of these settlements, you'd see piles of rocks of varying sizes with blue pieces of fabric tied to them - which local people apparently construct as offerings to the Shamen sky gods! We were duly informed by Idre that Shamanism is pretty big here in Mongolia. And this piece of information got me pretty excited, as I suddenly started expecting to see people everywhere dressed like Naboo - the Shamen dude from ace British comedy TV series The Mighty Boosh! Alas, this wasn't the case. However, we did see quite a few people herding goats, yaks and cows; while in a lot of the villages, there were loads of animal skins laid out by the side of the road. The going rate for a bear skin, according to Idre, is apparently a couple of hundred US dollars.
As it got to mid-afternoon, the landscape suddenly changed. Yes, we had finally made it to the desert - and it was fantastic, with some absolutely enormous sand dunes! We duly got out of the jeep and went for a bit of a hike, which was interesting - not least because there were quite a few bones lying around, presumably ones that had belonged to animals that had perished in the recent winter. I always thought that seeing bones in the desert was one of those cliches you just get in cartoons -but clearly, it's actually true!
Now according to the itinerary that Bolod had devised for us, the desert would be where we'd spend the night. "So what's the deal with that?" you're probably thinking. "Had he arranged some sort of accomodation for you?" Oh no! The plan was far more simple. We were simply going to find a nomad camp, and then Idre was going to ask them if we could crash in one of their tents! It's unbelievable really. I mean, a scenario where some random strangers just turn up unannounced on someone's doorstep asking for a bed for the night - could you imagine anyone in the UK actually giving them time of day?
Happily though, Mongolian folk are a bit different. Indeed, one thing that really shone out from Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's 'Long Way Round' TV series and book was how amazingly hospitable they are - and this was very much the case here.
That said, when we first stopped at what Idre decided was a suitable camp - a tiny one, consisting of just two traditional circular tents - there was no-one there! Idre decided it was worth hanging around for a while though to see if anyone appeared - and sure enough, we suddenly noticed a lone horseman in the distance, galloping towards us! It turned out that this guy was a yak herder who lived in one of the two tents - and when he arrived, he immediately agreed that we could stay! All smiles, the guy invited us in to one of the tents, and gave us a small bowl of warm yak milk each! Then, after showing us what was what, he left us to it and got back on his horse to continue his day's work!
Now the tent that would be our home for the night was absolutely amazing. From the outside it appeared quite small - however, it was like a tardis, as when you got inside it was surprisingly roomy. It was very homely too, with wooden beds, tables and chairs - painted brightly in a style reminiscent of the cliched image we all have of a gypsy wagon. Immediately, I was like "Wow, how cool would it be to have one of these for Glastonbury?"! The focal point of the tent was the stove in the middle. And as the night set in, we wasted no time in firing it up - because though the Siberian winter ended a few months ago, Mongolia can still be pretty cold at this time of year. Not that I minded - after all, I wouldn't feel like I was properly experiencing Mongolia if I didn't get to freeze my arse off at some point! After we'd spent a while just sitting around and chatting, the guy on the horse came back, having finished work for the day... with one of his friends in tow. They were both wearing these amazing smocks made out of thick yak wool - and after sitting downand getting settled, they produced a bottle of vodka and invited us to have a drink with them!
Now geographically.Mongolia is wedged between China and Russia - and I don't know why really, but I'd always thought it'd be much closer to China in terms of look and feel and the characteristics of the people. That's not really the case though - in fact, from what I can gather, a lot of the Mongolian people seem to strongly dislike the Chinese! And the influence of Russia here is much stronger than that of China - one of many examples of this being the fact that Mongolian people love their vodka! What's more, they love to drink it neat!
Sat in the tent, we discovered that drinking vodka Mongolian style involves pouring the stuff into a small bowl, getting everyone sat in a circle, and then passing the bowl round like it's a bong or something! Then, when the bowl is empty, it simply gets filled up again! Needless to say, it only took about 20 minutes for us to get through the entire bottle! Fortunately though, Cliff and I had bought a bottle of 'Genghis Khan' vodka during our trip to the supermarket earlier in the day - and so the drinking session was able to continue!
It was great - and thanks fo Idre being able to interpret, Cliff and I were able to have some entertaining banter with our hosts.
Now there are a lot of places close to Ulaanbaatar where you can stay overnight in a nomad camp, and the people who live there put on a bit of a show - traditional singing or dancing or whatever. I'm sure this would be great -however, it would also inevitably be a bit contrived. On the other hand, it genuinely felt like we were experiencing an ordinary evening's merriment with an ordinary bunch of Mongolian nomads. And they were fantastic people. One thing in particular that was great about them was their complete lack of interest in money. During my travels through Asia, I've encountered a lot of local people who will only let you take their photo if you give them some cash. These guys, in stark contrast, didn't seem remotely bothered - though they were absolutely fascinated by mine and Cliff's cameras. Given that they have no electricity or running water, I dare say the concept of such technology must be pretty alien to them.
After I'd shown them how, the two of them spent ages just flicking through all of the photos I have on my memory card, which go back to the very beginning of my current trip. They seemed particularly captivated by my snaps of New Zealand - though incredibly, they'd never even heard of the place! Happily, with the aid of a world map that Cliff had in the back of his diary, we were able to teach them something!
It was also amusing when the guys got to my photos from Vietnam. One of the snaps in question is of my friend Kate who I stayed with in Hanoi. And immediately on clapping eyes on her, the guys were like "Woooah!" Kate - if you're reading this, I'm sure you will be pleased to know that you officially have a fan club here in Mongolia! All it all, it was a great night. One of the highlights was when we heard the thundering of hooves approaching the tent - and it turned out to be the five-year-old son of one of the guys, arriving alone on horseback to join us! I mean, how cool is that?! Unsurprisingly, I slept very well in the tent after all the vodka - though there was the occasional interruption of barking dogs at various stages throughout the night.
Most Mongolian nomad families, we discovered, tend to have at least a couple of dogs in order to fend off wolves! The morning saw us get up bright and bid farewell to our new friends in order to continue our adventure. As we set off in the jeep, Idre asked Cliff and I if we'd be okay with him putting some music on. We were both like "Yeah, of course" - with me half hoping we might get to hear some traditional Mongolian throat singing or something. As it turned out, it was anything but - no, Idre's music of choice was The Beatles! Needless to say, hammering down dirt tracks through the Mongolian wilderness to the strains of 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da' was a deeply surreal experience.
In fact, it proved to be a pretty surreal day for music on the whole - as when we stopped at a village and went into a restaurant to have lunch, they had a TV set blaring out what appeared to be Mongolian gangsta rap! After lunch we pressed on, and again the sense of isolation was amazing. As with the previous day, we went for ages without seeing a soul - though bizarrely, one person we did see was the Mongolian Prime Minister, whose official car shot past us flanked by a convoy of security vehicles! We could only hope he wasn't on his way to make an official visit to the army base, as I'm sure he couldn't have been amused to see his soldiers letting a pair of tourists arse around with tanks and guns! Fortunately, as we arrived at the slightly delapidated base, it was immediately apparent that he must have gone elsewhere. After driving through the gates, we were greeted by a pair of soldiers in full military fatigues - and we immediately got down to business by negotiating how much cash they'd want to let us play with their toys! Again, could you imagine this sort of thing in the UK?!
Happily, a deal was soon done - and Cliff was soon blasting a wooden target to kingdom come with a massive rifle!
The main event however was me getting to drive a massive fuck-off tank! And it was brilliant!
The thing made a almighty roar as one of the soldier guys started the engine, and it kicked up an enormous cloud of dust as he drove it out of the gates of the army base - with Cliff and me perching on top, clinging on for dear life! Tanks, we discovered, can go surprisingly fast - and needless to say, I was VERY excited when the soldier dude pulled up in an area of open space, and invited me to take his place in the 'cockpit'.
Sat above me on topof the tank, he then barked instructions at me in not somuch broken as completely knackered English, as I struggled manfully with the controls! Perhaps niaively, I'd actually expected the tank to have a steering wheel! Far from it - the controls are, in fact, a bewilderingly complicated series of levers and pedals! Still, with us being in the middle of a big area of open space, it wasn't like I could crash into anything - and eventually, through trial and error, I managed to get a rough grasp on how to drive the thing. And it was a LOT of fun - though sadly we had to cut it short, as one of the soldier dudes had received word that some senior commander-type person was expected to arrive at the base any minute... and they were firmly of the opinion that this guy would NOT be amused by two of his minions having taken a bribe to let a tourist have a go in their tank!
The soldier dudes did seem to be genuinely panicking about the fact that they might get into trouble as we climbed back in our jeep and left. I really hope they didn't, as they were both cool guys. So all that was left for us now was simply to head back to Ulaanbaatar - where I'll now be staying for another day before pressing on for Russia. All in all though, our trip in the jeep was an amazing couple of days.
Getting to play at being Action Man was obviously a lot of fun - but more than anything it felt like a real priviledge to have the Mongolian nomads welcome us into their home. It was fascinating to get a glimpse into their way of life. In the world of the nomads, you suspect that not much has changed for hundreds and maybe even thousands of years. And the simplicity of the way they live was really refreshing. It felt like a real reminder of our tendency to over-complicate a lot of things in the western world.
Yes, we have such luxuries as electricity - yet for having these things, are any happier than a family of nomadic Mongolian yak helders? The stats for the amount of people on anti-depressants in the UK suggests probably not... That said, the western world is something many of the nomads seem to aspire to. As Mongolia's capital becomes increasingly developed, it's said that more and more of the nomads are abandoning nomad life and coming to live in Ulaanbaatar. Sadly though, it's said that some of them get completely sucked in by the bright lights. And though after having sold their tents and yaks they arrive with what is, to them, a huge stack of cash, they find it doesn't go very far in the big city - and quickly end up penniless.
I only hope that this doesn't end up happening to mine and Cliff's new friends...